Follow Up to Utility Industry-Funded Study Leads to Finding that Mercury in Fish No Problem, Scores of Independent Studies Suggest
WASHINGTON — In an effort to divert building efforts to warn American women about the dangers of mercury-contaminated tuna fish, seafood industry lobbyists are hyping a study originally funded by the mercury-polluting utility industry showing that children in a remote Indian Ocean island nation were not harmed by mercury pollution in the seafood their mothers ate when pregnant.
The US Tuna Association is aggressively promoting the study, a continuation of findings on a population of children in the Seychelles Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The Seychelles findings have consistently been the only ones running contrary to a large body of data showing that mercury can harm the fetal brain at very low doses.
In its most recent review of mercury toxicity, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) reviewed 237 studies on mercury toxicity, including the Seychelles studies, and found that the Seychelles population should not be used as the sentinel population for fish consumers in the US:
“...because there is a large body of scientific studies showing adverse neurodevelopmental effects, including well-designed epidemiological studies, the committee concludes that a [reference dose] should not be derived from a study, such as the Seychelles, study, that did not find associations with MeHg [methylmercury].”
“The industry-favored data from the Seychelles are ’outliers’ and do nothing to rebut the NAS conclusion that public health safeguards for mercury shouldn’t be based on this one study,” said Jane Houlihan, Vice President for Research at the Environmental Working Group (EWG). “We know that mercury is toxic to the fetal brain. The real question is, what’s wrong with this one study that finds toxic levels of mercury are safe?”
Environmental Working Group (EWG) has used government and industry data to show that:
- Seafood available in American supermarkets is often contaminated with highly toxic methylmercury from the burning of coal in power plants and medical waste in trash incinerators.
- Officials at the Food and Drug Administration suppressed a taxpayer-funded public opinion research effort aimed at educating American consumers about the dangers in mercury-contaminated seafood. Records suggest this was done after multiple meetings between FDA and seafood lobbyists promoting the Indian Ocean study.
- As a result, nearly a year after the FDA’s Food Advisory Committee recommended that the agency advise women to limit canned tuna consumption, American women are still not being warned about the dangers of mercury in canned or fresh tuna, which comprise 1/3 of all seafood consumption nationwide.
The NAS and the US Environmental Protection Agency starkly disagree with the industry-favored studies. The NAS reviewed 237 studies to conclude that federal health policy should be based on a much more protective standard than the industry-favored study would suggest.
The evidence from 40 years of research on mercury toxicity has left even typically industry-friendly Bush Administration officials focused on cutting people’s exposure to mercury. Just a tablespoon of mercury can contaminate a 40-acre lake.
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Editor’s note: see PR hype from seafood industry below.
Copyright 2003 PR Newswire Association, Inc.
May 15, 2003, Thursday
SECTION: WASHINGTON DATELINE
DISTRIBUTION: TO NATIONAL, HEALTH/MEDICAL AND FOOD EDITORS
LENGTH: 596 words
HEADLINE: Scientists Confirm No Link Between Prenatal Exposure to Mercury In Fish, Impaired Neurodevelopment; US Tuna Foundation Applauds Study in THE LANCET Affirming Safety of Ocean Fish
DATELINE: WASHINGTON, May 15
The canned tuna industry is hailing a long-term study being published today as a confirmation of their continuous message to consumers that normal consumption of ocean fish -- including canned tuna -- is clearly safe, even for pregnant women.
"What the public can conclude from this long-awaited study is that canned tuna -- which contains only trace amounts of mercury -- poses no health risks," said Dave Burney, Executive Director for the U.S. Tuna Foundation. "It's time to quit scaring consumers and allow them to enjoy good food that's good for them. We shouldn't ignore mercury and its effect in large concentrations. But we also shouldn't ignore the scientific proof -- eating canned tuna poses no health risks, and it offers significant health benefits."
In today's issue of the British medical journal, THE LANCET, publishers report investigators have concluded that, "there is no evidence of neurodevelopmental risk from prenatal methylmercury exposure resulting solely from ocean fish consumption."
A team of researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center investigated 779 mother-infant pairs enrolled in the Seychelles Childhood Development Study, which was established in 1989. The 80,000 residents of the East African islands northeast of Madagascar are high-volume consumers of ocean fish. Mothers in the study reported 12 fish meals a week, compared to the U.S. average of one meal a week.
In a commentary accompanying the published report, Dr. Constantine Lyketsos, of Johns Hopkins Hospital, said, "the existing evidence suggests that methylmercury exposure from fish consumption during pregnancy, of the level seen in most parts of the world, does not have measurable cognitive or behavioral effects in later childhood ... For now, there is no reason for pregnant women to reduce fish consumption below current levels, which are probably safe."
Prenatal methylmercury exposure was determined by analyzing the women's hair during pregnancy. Then, nine years later, investigators tested their children for neurocognitive, language, memory, motor, perceptual-motor, and behavioral functions.
All ocean fish contain some mercury naturally. Canned tuna has a concentration of 0.17 parts per million, far below the Food & Drug Administration action level of 1.0 ppm. The FDA, American Heart Association, and other health organizations have noted that canned tuna -- an excellent source of protein and beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids -- is a healthy food choice and an important part of a balanced diet.
"Canned tuna is one of the safest, healthiest foods on the market today," Burney said. "The facts are in: Consumers should feel comfortable in coming to the table and enjoying a safe and convenient tuna meal, like they have for a full century."
Canned tuna, which celebrates its 100-year anniversary in 2003, is a $1.1- billion industry in the U.S., with Americans consuming about a billion pounds of tuna annually. It's a staple meal choice for nearly nine out of every 10 households in the nation.
For more information on canned tuna, its benefits, and new ways to enjoy it, go to www.tunafacts.com. The U.S. Tuna Foundation is the national organization representing canned tuna processors and the fishing boats that supply them.
SOURCE U.S. Tuna Foundation
CONTACT: Melanie Miller of U.S. Tuna Foundation, +1-202-857-0610; or Anne Banner, +1-202-367-1626, for the U.S. Tuna Foundation